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In T-shirt weather last week, people gathered on the Del Mar shore to watch the setting sun illuminate the horizon in an awesome orange-red hue. This spectacular scene transfixes observers in reposed awe on a regular basis here, though in their hearts and minds they know that something about the picture is not right.

Without a cloud in the sky, the sun's dying rays instead brighten the smog layer lying over the Pacific Ocean. The environment feels better now than it did before catalytic converters, when from Running Springs (elevation: 1,850 metres) in the nearby San Bernardino Mountains, the mushroomed smog appeared as thick cloud over the basin below. "I remember 'spare-the-air' days when as kids, we were not allowed go outside until certain times," says Shad Balch, new product manager for Chevrolet.

Californians love cars as much as they depend on them. The state ranks as Porsche's No. 5 market in the world. Mercedes-Benz's sales sheet is similarly lopsided, and they are but two of many auto makers banking on the car-loving state for profits. Consequently, what happens in California, doesn't stay in California. The vehicles we drive in Canada, and the way we drive them, are influenced to ever-expanding degrees by this state, starting with ever-more aggressive mandates for stricter emission standards, ranging to the number of cup-holders in SUVs and the spectre of metred lanes on busy commuter paths.

Nissan, Chrysler, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and BMW operate design centres here – Nissan's centre in La Jolla designed the new Titan pickup from scratch. Ford's research and innovation lab in Palo Alto refines algorithms for autonomous driving. Connectivity solutions come out of Silicon Valley. Tesla is native Californian; Hyundai and Toyota sell hydrogen fuel cell vehicles here. Ten universities offer masters degrees in automotive engineering. Orth Hedrick, vice-president, product planning for Kia Motors in Irvine, Calif., openly questions Detroit's status as the continent's automotive centre: "A lot of the new innovation is coming from Califonia," he says.

Freeways run four to eight lanes across in one direction, yet with congestion trumping new construction perennially, no wonder the Waze app was invented here. San Diego, not unlike Vancouver and Toronto, ingested more population in recent decades than the roads could tolerate. CalTrans reacted by installing special lanes for drivers willing to pay a price on the I-15 to zip past the bumper-to-bumper lanes; the cost fluctuates with demand, and don't be surprised to see the concept coming to a highway near you. Ontario has already put the notion out there.

"We get up at 5 in the morning to get to work and it's no big deal to have an 1.5-hour commute each way, sometimes two hours when the traffic is bad," says Hedrick, who brought Kia executives from Korea to demonstrate the need for dual cup-holders in rush-hour traffic. "We are influenced by time in the car."

The car pool (HOV) lanes extend double-wide in stretches and the fine for violating is $391, so it seemed surprising last Thursday to see a solo-driven Prius coming out of a dedicated ramp that is elevated over the 405/5 freeways merger near Mission Viejo. Turns out, the Prius is exempted. In addition to rebates, owners of "clean-air vehicles" are granted restriction-free access to the car pool lanes.

"A great perk," said Balch, speaking at the Los Angeles auto show with the plug-in Volt behind him on a stage. "The governor's administration here and CARB have done a really good job of helping us prep the marketplace, from [incenting] workplace charging stations to installing public infrastructure. We hope other states follow California's lead, because we need to work together to get people to want to buy these cars."

CARB stands for California Air Resources Board, the state agency bringing mighty VW to its knees. Federally, the Environmental Protection Association is requiring auto makers to meet an average 54.5 mpg standard by 2025 (double 2011's average), while separately, California is mandating 50 per cent reduction of petroleum usage by 2030.

"The California Air Resources Board sets its own guidelines and as a manufacturer, we want one standard; it's extremely difficult to operate under two standards," said Stephen Cannon, president of Mercedes-Benz North America. "Gasoline prices as low as they are, there's not a natural consumer demand [for zero-emission vehicles]. … It's a challenging environment."

In April, Mercedes declared 2015 the "year of the SUV," with reason. Delegates to a recent J.D. Power/Canadian Black Book conference in Toronto were told that SUV sales have climbed to 31 per cent of the Canadian market, with a bullet. Some 70 new or redesigned SUV models are to be introduced by 2020. Problem is, they guzzle gas. "We are doing all the right things – becoming more efficient, offering zero-emission vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles," Cannon said. "But people have to want to buy them."

The smog situation couldn't go on. The state is bent on ensuring it won't, and like the fisherman pulling snapper from the Pacific, it's got the automotive industry hooked by the nose, sunsets be damned.

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